Bed Bugs At The UA? Not Really. Here’s The Whole Story

(Image courtesy of dermRounds via Flickr)
(Image courtesy of dermRounds via Flickr)

When news broke last week that the Sheepshead Bay United Artists movie theater (3907 Shore Parkway) is suffering a bed bug infestation, everyone was aghast. Cue the fearmongering videos, complete with stock footage of the scurrying suckers, on myFOX New York. From there it hit the blogs over at Gothamist, then the Tweets of Terror spun into overdrive on Twitter, and Facebook friends began swearing off movies like it was, well, the plague. As it turns out, the UA was never closed, news reports were based on rumors, and follow-up reveals that it’s likely false.

Over at Sheepshead Bites, while the media had their fun we just gnashed our teeth and grumbled. You see, we heard rumors about bed bugs at Sheepshead Bay Multiplex more than a month ago. But we couldn’t confirm it: no witnesses or victims, no employees saying anything of the sort, nothing but a brief denial over the phone by management. So we weren’t quite ballsy enough to publish a story that would inevitably hurt business at Sheepshead Bay’s largest attraction without a shred of evidence.

Not so with the mainstream news. Read carefully and you’ll see the news reports were based on a single anonymous, unverified claim to the Department of Health, with no violations issued. While we were working up contacts within the UA, News 12 and FOX jumped on the mere whisper of a scandal and began plugging away, even reporting at one point that the movie theater had closed down. (Interestingly, News 12’s report appeared one morning several days before FOX’s. It promptly disappeared around noon, and was never posted on the website. Maybe they realized their folly?)

Well, we finally got to our contact, a senior employee at the theater, and here’s what he had to say:

About a month and a half ago, we had a couple patrons who came to our theater and left with bites. It was technically in only two theaters. The first person, we had no clue what it was, so we thought she was just bit on the arm by a mosquito because it wasn’t severe. To this day we still don’t think it was bed bugs because after checking that auditorium with dogs and Ecolab, they found nothing but cleaned it anyway. Then about a few days later, another patron came out of one of the other theaters with bites on the neck. She showed us the seat and being that it was the last show, Ecolab came and started their treatment in that row. We haven’t had a complaint since.

Remember, it was around this time that news reporters were working themselves into a frenzy about a bed bug infestation over at John Jay college, where buildings had been shut down. Bed bugs, clearly, where on the public’s consciousness, and just as every runny nose these days rings of H1N1 Swine Flu, every bug bite victim suspected bed bugs.

In reality, if the UA had bed bugs, it’s a perfect nesting ground to spark a pandemic. Complaints would roll in by the dozen. Yet, as the senior employee notes, this all occurred as the film Law Abiding Citizen came out, and every auditorium was packed. The result?

“Not one complaint. So did we have them? We aren’t sure but they still treat those theaters just in case,” said the employee.

So the media clearly bungled this one for sensationalism’s sake. But who pays for their sins? Sheepshead Bay’s largest business. According to the UA employee, the theater saw lower sales as a result, and a lot of confusion over whether they had been shut down by the Health Department.

“In the 8 years I’ve been there, not once were we ever closed. There was no need for alarm because nothing was really ever found,” he said. “The news messed with business since everyone thought we were closed. We had dozens of calls asking us if we were open. Horrible news reporting on FOX’s and News 12’s part.”

That’s the real story, but do you think we’ll ever see a retraction from FOX or News 12? Not likely. And the tweets, status updates, and forum posts continue to spread the myth.

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